I have a fennel problem.
Well, Danny refers to it as a problem. I think it’s perfectly fine that from December through June I would like to eat something with fennel in it every single day.
Can you blame me?
Chopped fennel has the crisp crash against the teeth of celery, without the bland watery taste or the strings that catch between your teeth. It has the faint reminder of black jelly beans or the candies from Mike and Ikes I always left stuck at the bottom of the box. Too much licorice taste leaves my tongue cringing in my mouth. A little from fennel? It feels refreshing.
Honestly, I don’t need much from my fennel. Thin slices on the mandoline, a little lemony vinaigrette, perhaps a few flicks of fresh goat cheese on top, and some Maldon salt crunched onto it all. (Hm. I’m having that for lunch again today, I realize.)
Fennel also caramelizes beautifully. A little heat, a little time, and there are caramel-brown marks on that once-white bulb. The curvy sway of the fennel curled against the pan here?
Oh, I’m hungry.
Last week, Danny made a recipe from our friend Jess Thomson’s new book, Pike Place Market Recipes: 130 Delicious Ways to Bring Home Seattle’s Famous Market. It’s a wonderful rush of a book, filled with photographs of that dazzling mundane place. Lucy always stares with wide eyes when we go to the Market. And then she talks about it for days afterward. It has become a bit of a cliche of Seattle, the stand at the front where men in rubber pants throw fish over tourists’ heads. That’s the thing — that stand is for the tourists. But walk into the darker corners, the stalls farther away, and you’re going to find food from every part of the world. We avoid the place in summer, when the throngs are really there to take photos of Lowell’s, because Tom Hanks ate a piece of tiramisu there in Sleepless in Seattle. But every other time of the year, especially when it’s fennel season in this house, Pike Place Market is about the best, most meandering grocery store you can imagine.
Jess gathered ingredients and recipes from nearly every purveyor in the place and turned those random scribblings into something great. “The Pike Place Market inspires good eating” reads the back cover. That was certainly true in this house. Danny and I flipped through the book and wanted to make nearly everything — wild mushroom tagliatelle! Spanish chickpea and chorizo stew! deviled duck eggs with green olives, smoked paprika, and fried capers! — but my stomach that day had only one dish in mind. Halibut with caramelized fennel and olives.
Halibut had just come into season. All three of us in this house love olives with briny abandon. And the entire dish seemed quick enough to make for a hungry kiddo. But really, it was that fennel.
We piled it all on one plate. Each of us darted forks over the plate until it was gone. Lucy was happy.
Ah, that fennel.
But for years, I’ve had a little guilt in me. What to do with the fennel fronds?
Sometimes I chop them up fine and toss them into salads. However, most of the time, I have thrown them away. Goodbye to all that leafy greenness. Sorry.
Now, no more.
Last week, the wonderful Heidi of 101 Cookbooks posted a recipe for rhubarb syrup with rosewater. We didn’t have rosewater but we had orange flower water. After we visited the farmers’ market, I had arms full of long rhubarb stalks, like an awkward bouquet of spring. Jasper, one of our favorite farmers, was selling bunches of baby fennel. Duh. We bought those too.
When we were home, I diced up the rhubarb to mix it with sugar and let it sit. The baby fennel sat on the countertop, the fronds mocking me. What to do with these particularly lush, just-pulled-from the ground fennel fronds? I chopped them up and tossed them with sugar, just to see what would happen. Since fennel fronds don’t have much juice, I let it sit overnight. The next morning, I covered them with water, tossed in a star anise, and simmered it all to a syrup.
Holy cow, yes.
This syrup is fennel, condensed. It’s sweet and refreshing and destined for thick yogurt in the morning. I think it would be lovely on top of ice cream. I don’t drink much alcohol these days, but I’m sure this would make a great cocktail.
One more way to enjoy fennel?
This is the kind of problem I like to have.
The measurements here are entirely by feel. When I made it first, I simply chopped up the fronds we had from a bunch of baby fennel, poured some sugar on top until the fronds were lightly coated, and let it sit. Baking requires precision. This is more intuition. But I’ve given you some rough estimates of measurements if you need a start.
You could try to rush this, but why? Let it all sit overnight. It mingles together while you sleep.
We’ve been mixing this with fizzy water for a refreshing spring drink. I’m sure you can think of plenty of other ways to use it too.
3 cups chopped fennel fronds
1 1/2 cups organic cane sugar
1 star anise
Coating the fennel fronds. Put the fennel fronds in a large bowl. Pour the sugar evenly over the top. When the sugar lightly coats the fennel fronds with plenty of green bits sticking up, you have enough sugar. Coat the fennel fronds with the sugar by tossing it all with your hands. Set the bowl aside and let the fennel and sugar mingle overnight.
Steeping the fennel. In the morning, toss the fennel fronds and sugar together again. Pour in enough water to just cover the fennel. Let this sit for 1 hour.
Making the syrup. Pour the sugary fennel water into a pot. Add the star anise. Set the pot over medium-high heat. Bring the water to a boil, stirring occasionally, then turn the heat down to medium. Allow the fennel, sugar, star anise, and water to simmer until the water has reduced and thickened, about 15 to 25 minutes. When the syrup feels thick enough to you, pour the contents of the pot through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl waiting below. Allow the syrup to cool.
Makes about 1 pint.